April 24, 2005

CHICAGO (March 24)—When Chicago police arrested two men and charged them with the 1999 slaying and robbery of Metra Electric conductor Wilbert Hooten, his fellow conductors at the commuter-rail line got busy.

Members of UTU Local No. 1290 formed a 17-person “justice team” and volunteered their time to make sure that several members of the team would be in the courtroom on each day of the trial and sentencing hearing.

Today their patience and spirit were rewarded when Cook County Circuit Court Judge John Kirby sentenced one of the killers, Brandon Wyatt, 22, to 42 years in prison for murder. Wyatt was convicted in a bench trial before Judge Kirby February 24. Wyatt’s accomplice, Jason Dace, was earlier sentenced to a 20-year term after agreeing to plead guilty.

“We had between six and twelve of our members in the courtroom on every date from the start of the trial to the conclusion of the sentencing,” said UTU #1290 Local Chairman Barry A. Abbott. “And there were 10 or 12 different dates on which the trial and sentencing were going forward. As soon as the trial started, we started attending, and we never missed a date.”

Brother Hooten, a well liked Metra veteran on the brink of retirement after 30 years of service, was shot to death as his Blue Island Branch train was stopped in the West Pullman station at around 6 p.m.

According to Wyatt’s taped confession, which he later unsuccessfully tried to repudiate, Wyatt and Dace leaped the turnstile, boarded the train and demanded the cash fares Hooten had collected. Hooten, who had always advised younger trainmen never to challenge an armed mugger, became nervous and dropped his receipts and tickets on the floor, but Wyatt shoved a gun in his face anyway and shot him. The two assailants immediately fled.

In addition to material from Dace’s confession, Judge Kirby heard testimony from Ralph McPheeters, the engineer of Brother Hooten’s train; and from UTU members Gregory Harris, John Chapelle and Lemont Stevens, who had seen Wyatt and Dace loitering on the West Pullman platform when their trains passed through earlier.

“It took about two years before the police found these guys,” Brother Abbott said. “Dace accepted a plea bargain, but Wyatt went for a bench trial, and as soon as the trial started our Local made sure we always had somebody in the courtroom. Because Metra crews often have layovers in the middle of the day we were always able to find anywhere from six to twelve people from our local who were available to sit in the courtroom.”

“The sentencing hearing took four hours, but it was worth it” Brother Abbott said. Judge Kirby was wonderful. He explained 17 different points of law that affected his verdict.”

“Wonderful” also was the way Brother Abbott described the County Jail personnel at 26th and California on Chicago’s Near Southwest Side.

“Every day that members of the UTU or Wilbur’s family were in the courtroom we were attended by Kathy B. Wright, a professional counselor from the Cook County Victim and Witness Assistance Program,” he said. “They provided parking for our group, they fed us and they looked after all our needs every day,” he said. “We really appreciated the food. There are very few restaurants in the area around the Court House.”

Following Wyatt’s conviction the Local 1290 justice team read into the record a letter to Judge Kirby “extending our gratitude for the hospitality that has been shown to us in your courtroom during the trial.” The letter, which was read aloud in the courtroom, went on to call Wilbert Hooten “a gentleman, an exceptional employee and co-worker and a loyal member of the United Transportation Union” who was looking forward to retirement but never lived to enjoy it.

“We were elated to know that after six years, justice has finally been brought to his family and to all of us who knew him and embraced him,” the letter said. “…All of us grieve Wilbert’s loss daily as we pass the plaque of his likeness displayed in his honor at the Metra Randolph and Michigan station.”

Brother Abbott identified the members of the justice team as Local No. 1290 President Jeff Fields, Secretary/Treasurer T.L. Warner; Local Chair Jessie Turner; Vice Local Chair Edwin Bogan; Vice Local Chair Brooks Warren; Edward Washington, Sam DeCrescenzo, Leonard Holmes, Daniel Austin, Vernon Brooks, Arthur Sobun, Nick Chou, Lemont Stevens, John Chappel, Ted Czmiel, James Pochron, and Gerald Bennett.

“The dedication of the members of Local 1290 in following up on the murder of Wilbert Hooten is a shining example of solidarity among working people,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “You can’t help but applaud the way members of our union came together after this terrible tragedy to make sure justice was done.”